Sustainability initiatives

Certification and verification schemes can be powerful tools for value addition, access to a fast-growing market segment and the dissemination of good agricultural, environmental and social practices.

Consumers are demonstrating an increasing interest in the economic, social and environmental aspects of coffee production. As a result, coffee covered by the various initiatives is estimated to constitute 8 percent of world exports of green coffee (see wcc2010-giovannucci-e.pdf) and is the fastest growing market segment in traditional (developed country) markets.

Sustainability programmes
The main sustainability programmes are:

Fairtrade Certified - Fairtrade Labelling is an international system of standards for producers and terms of trade for their goods that ensure the world’s most marginalised farmers, workers and their families in 59 developing countries are adequately protected and can build a more sustainable future. The FAIRTRADE Mark gives assurance to retailers and consumers that Fairtrade producers in the developing world are getting a fair deal for their work. Fairtrade certification also ensures adherence to strict social standards that foster healthy working conditions and prohibit child labour. Their environmental standards ensure that natural ecosystems are not degraded and cultivated land is used sustainably.

Organic certification - International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)
IFOAM’s basic standards should be considered as a baseline reference standards for organic agriculture worldwide. Although many people understand organic agriculture as the prohibition of synthetic agrochemicals, the organic standards also include nature conservation through the prohibition of clearing primary ecosystems, biodiversity preservation, soil and water conservation, a prohibition on the use of genetically modified organisms, diversity in crop production, maintenance of soil fertility and biological activity, among others. Since 1996 there has also been a basic chapter on social justice, which is implemented by IFOAM accredited certification bodies.

Rainforest Alliance Certified - Many coffee farms are in areas regarded as high priorities for conservation. The Rainforest Alliance and its partner groups in the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) have demonstrated that traditional, forested coffee farms are havens for wildlife. Rainforest Alliance certification aims to maintain biodiversity in the production areas, while at the same time striving for sustainable living conditions for farmers, plantation workers and the local population. The certification also guarantees that farmers are assisted with improved farm management, negotiation leverage and access to premium markets; farm workers are treated with respect, paid fair wages, are properly equipped and given access to education and Medicare. By implementing the SAN sustainable farm-management system, farmers can control costs, gain efficiencies and improve crop quality.

SMBC “Bird friendly” - The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s shade-grown coffee certification program promotes the growth of coffee that is economically, environmentally and socio-culturally viable. Coffee grown in the shade of tree canopies, rather than on land cleared of other vegetation, provides a habitat for a number of species, including not only migratory birds but also orchids, insects, mammals such as bats, reptiles and amphibians. Shade trees protect the coffee plants from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding and aid in pest control, while organic matter from shade trees reduces erosion, contributes nutrients to the soil, and prevents metal toxicities. Shade-grown coffee is given the Smithsonian's Bird Friendly label if the growing conditions meet organic standards, as well as other criteria such as canopy height, foliage cover and number of bird species. The Smithsonian trains certification agencies to recognize these criteria and carry out Bird Friendly evaluations at the same time as they inspect farms for organic standards. Farmers volunteer for the inspection and pay nothing to the Center.

UTZ Certified - The UTZ CERTIFIED Code of Conduct establishes a set of social and environmental criteria for responsible coffee growing practices and efficient farm management, including standards for recordkeeping, minimized and documented use of agrochemicals for crop protection, protection of labour rights and access to health care and education for employees and their families. Coffee producers who are UTZ CERTIFIED are subject to annual inspections by independent certifiers to ensure they comply with the requirements of the Code of Conduct. A web-based Track and Trace system follows the UTZ CERTIFIED coffee through the chain from grower to roaster. This gives buyers insight into where their coffee really comes from.

Multi-stakeholder/Sector initiatives
The Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C) - The 4C Association is an open and inclusive membership association involving coffee producers, trade and industry and civil society. The 4C Code of Conduct embraces 28 social, environmental and economic principles for all players in the green coffee supply chain - farmers, plantations, producer organizations, estates, mills, exporters and traders - establishing baseline requirements for the sustainable production, processing and trading of coffee and eliminating unacceptable practices. The code facilitates a dynamic improvement process by providing guidance for and commitment to continuous improvement. 4C helps growers, especially small-holders, and their Business Partners to step up from the sustainability baseline to more demanding standards.

Corporate Programmes

Nespresso ecolaboration - Nespresso has been working to protect coffee ecosystems by promoting sustainable agricultural best practices in ecosystem conservation, wildlife protection and water conservation. Sustainable agricultural training for farmers is provided by Nespresso agronomists, coffee suppliers and experts from the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) - a coalition of leading conservation groups. The Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Coffee Program sets out to ensure the cultivation of highest quality coffee in ways that are environmentally sustainable and beneficial to farming communities.

Starbucks C.A.F.E Practices - Starbucks defines sustainability as an economically viable model that addresses the social and environmental needs of all the participants in the supply chain from farmer to consumer. The Starbucks C.A.F.E. program evaluates the sustainable production of coffee according to four categories: Product Quality, Economic Accountability, Social Responsibility, and Environmental Leadership. The programme was designed to establish quality criteria for growers, processors, and vendors in order to encourage cooperation and shared responsibility throughout the supply chain. It addresses critical issues such as water conservation, worker conditions, including hiring practices and policies, and conservation of biodiversity amongst others matters.

However, reservations have been expressed about several aspects of the functioning of these programmes, including:

  • Common denominator approach
    Questions have been raised as to the homogenizing “common denominator” approach that is built into the checklist-based compliance methodology of the different certifications, which fails to take into account differences in local conditions.
  • Industry structure and social equity
    Many producing countries are concerned that the costs of compliance with certification schemes are beyond the means of smallholders and compatible only with larger and comparatively well-organized producers. This concern is especially acute in regard to schemes designed for the mainstream market, which might become a barrier to market access for those unable or unwilling to comply.
  • Cost vs. benefits
    In addition to the direct benefits in terms of improved market access, especially price premiums, participation in certification schemes is thought to improve performance in a variety of social, economic and environmental indicators. However, these benefits have associated costs: apart from those related to the actual certification/verification procedures, compliance with standards may require considerable investments and also entail reduced yields. The evaluation of overall costs and benefits is complicated by factors that are specific to a certain site and the time lags involved. As a result, a high degree of uncertainty still exists as to whether the benefits of participation in a specific scheme outweigh the costs. Further research in the field is required.
  • Multiplicity of certification bodies
    The large number of different bodies, each with its own differing standards, involved in the certification of coffee may lead to confusion in the mind of consumers. Furthermore, limited space exists on packaging for certification logos and other information not directly related to the brand in question. The need to comply with more than one certification scheme also raises costs for producers. For this reason, some certification schemes have been discussing ways in which to achieve multiple certifications in order to achieve economies of scale and cost savings. Questions have been raised as to the long-term viability of the large number of existing certification schemes. 
  • Supply and demand balance
    Consumer interest in making ethical purchasing decisions of coffee has grown in recent years. However, a willingness to buy ethical products may not translate into actual purchases. For a majority of end-users, price and intrinsic quality are more important than certified compliance with a code of conduct or standard. Therefore, the potential size of the market for certified coffees is restricted. At the same time, the supply of such coffees is not necessarily always demand driven and may result in oversupply. Therefore, while certification definitely adds to a coffee’s image and may enhance its value, certification by itself is not a guarantee of premium prices in the longer term. Producers must also bear in mind that the overall levels of premiums are likely to decrease as availability grows.

For a comparative overview see also The Coffee GuideNiche markets, environment and social aspects” (03.07.02).